As I have witnessed the tragedy that has befallen the Japanese people over the last few weeks and have felt the emotional tug caused by the suffering of my fellow beings I have been amazed at how malleable is our willingness and ability to forgive and forget.
You see, in childhood, I was given no particular reason to have any sympathy for the people of Japan.
Because I was among the huge group of baby boomers born to World War II veterans who were just arriving back home after having saved the world from the “Japs”… I willingly accepted derisive terms such as “Jap” and “Nip” as the inevitable result of legitimate bias driven by well-earned enmity. During my formative years, my impressions of Japan and all things Japanese largely began with Pearl Harbor and ended with Hiroshima.
Even before I was born however, the shift had already occurred and those who had been our enemies were eventually to become our allies our friends.
Growing up, my chief source of information regarding all things Japanese came from my Dad’s war stories, from old black & white films starring John Wayne and others, and from photos of the Battleship Arizona exploding followed by the image of the mushroom cloud produced by the atomic explosion. I knew that the Japanese were evil from watching newsreel footage and dramatizations of horrific events from the war like the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March.
My perspective on Japan and Japanese culture was further skewed by the subsequent deluge of cheap products that flooded the US in the 50s causing the term “Made in Japan” to be synonymous with poor quality. One of my earliest recollections regarding Japan comes from having a small metal toy automobile fall apart and finding that it had been crafted from an old American beer can. The Schlitz emblem and colorful logo were still clearly evident on the inside. The spate of ultra-cheap, extremely sensational horror movies like Godzilla and Rodan that followed, further colored my judgement as a child.
My impressions began to change slightly when, as a teen, I received my first transistor radio as a Christmas gift and discovered that this marvelous instrument was also “Made in Japan” and that it allowed me the freedom to enjoy the music I loved, not just while plugged into the wall outlet in my bedroom, or while riding in the car, but virtually anywhere, at anytime.
Later, when I became enamoured with motorcycles, I was impressed that a company called Honda had become a leader in the field formerly dominated by domestic companies like Harley Davidson or European precision manufacturers such as BMW. When I got my first bike, it was a Suzuki …
As a child, a young adult, and through much of my professional career I’ve witnessed the complete and total metamorphosis of the image of the Japanese people and the nation of Japan as a world power. I’ve seen the amazing ability of Japan to adapt to reality and to take that which was a weakness and to create a strength.
At this moment, I am processing these words on a laptop computer made by Toshiba and I am well-aware that while they didn’t discover electricity, nor invent the microchip, practically every electronic marvel that we enjoy today was made possible through the pluck and innovative ability of the post-war Japanese. The concept of “Quality” did not originate in Japan, but the Japanese took it to heart and consequently our lives are more productive and enjoyable.
Earlier, I praised the ability of human beings to forgive and forget. Certainly, I was speaking from the perspective of those who have forgiven Japan for the evils perpetrated during the war. But, I could just as easily be speaking of the ease with which the Japanese civilian populace pulled itself up out of the ashes of the atomic explosion and almost immediately began to reinvent themselves in spite of a generation or more of constant visual reminders that awful day.
As we watch the recent news, isn’t it hard to ignore the irony of the potential for nuclear devastation in Japan as a terrifying side effect of the already catastrophic earthquake and tsunami damage?
Today as the generation of Americans who actually fought the Japanese rapidly fade from history, and those Japanese who carried the physical and mental scars of the war disappear, the fact that we were once mortal enemies has all but disappeared as well. Perhaps there was a time when our grandparents would have felt differently. Maybe even our parents s were hesitant to move on. But today, instead of the nation of people who fought so fanatically against our country almost 70 years ago, what we Americans see now is simply the unbelievable suffering of our fellow human beings.
And while we’re deeply saddened to know that it was not always so, we can be encouraged by the evidence that even though fighting and hatred appear to be a regrettable part of our make-up, the “better angels of our nature” eventually prevail.